Who Is On The $50 Bill? Exploring the Legacy of Ulysses S. Grant

As a coin collector and numismatic enthusiast, I‘ve always been fascinated by the historical figures chosen to appear on U.S. currency. One banknote that often gets overlooked in favor of more common denominations is the $50 bill, which features a portrait of Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States. In this in-depth article, we‘ll explore the life and legacy of Grant, the artistic evolution of the $50 note, and its place within the broader landscape of American currency. We‘ll also highlight some of the most rare and valuable examples sought after by collectors. So grab your magnifying glass and join me on this deep dive into the intriguing history behind the $50 bill.

The Civil War Hero Turned President

To understand why Ulysses S. Grant was chosen to grace the $50 bill, it‘s essential to examine his outsized impact on American history. Born in Ohio in 1822, Grant emerged as one of the most successful and strategically brilliant generals of the Union Army during the American Civil War. His victories at key battles such as Vicksburg and Chattanooga helped turn the tide of the war in favor of the North, culminating in his acceptance of Confederate General Robert E. Lee‘s surrender at Appomattox Court House in 1865.

Grant‘s wartime leadership and popularity among veterans propelled him to the presidency in 1868. As the nation‘s chief executive, he worked to reconcile the Union and former Confederacy while protecting the civil rights of newly freed African Americans during the tumultuous Reconstruction era. Grant‘s notable achievements included:

  • Establishing the Department of Justice to enforce federal laws and protect civil rights
  • Signing the Fifteenth Amendment to prohibit denying citizens the right to vote based on race
  • Prosecuting the Ku Klux Klan to curb racial violence and intimidation in the South
  • Stabilizing the post-war economy by reducing the national debt and returning to the gold standard

However, Grant‘s presidency was also marred by corruption scandals involving his cabinet officials and close associates, though he himself was never directly implicated. After leaving office, Grant faced financial ruin due to a Ponzi scheme orchestrated by his business partner. Diagnosed with terminal throat cancer, he raced against time to pen his memoirs, which became a critical and commercial success thanks to the promotional efforts of his friend Mark Twain. Published shortly after Grant‘s death in 1885, the autobiography helped restore his family‘s fortunes and solidified his legacy.

The Artistic Evolution of the $50 Note

Ulysses S. Grant first appeared on the $50 bill in 1913, but the design of the note has undergone significant changes over the past century. To truly appreciate the artistry and symbolism behind the current iteration, let‘s take a journey through its development.

Early $50 Bill Designs (1862-1913)

The first $50 notes issued by the U.S. government, known as Legal Tender Notes or United States Notes, debuted in 1862 and featured a portrait of Alexander Hamilton on the face. Other notable figures to grace 19th-century $50 bills included:

  • Henry Clay, U.S. Senator and former Secretary of State (Series of 1869)
  • William H. Seward, Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson (Series of 1891)
  • Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father and inventor (Series of 1874)

The Arrival of Ulysses S. Grant (Series of 1913)

In 1913, the U.S. Department of the Treasury launched a redesign of American currency to standardize the appearance of banknotes and feature portraits of deceased presidents. Due to his immense popularity as a war hero and two-term president, Ulysses S. Grant was chosen to replace Benjamin Franklin on the $50 Federal Reserve Note. This marked the beginning of Grant‘s uninterrupted tenure on the bill for over a century.

Modern Redesigns and Security Features (1990s-Present)

While Grant‘s portrait has remained constant, the overall design of the $50 note has evolved to incorporate new artwork, motifs, and anti-counterfeiting measures. Major updates include:

  • Series of 1990: Microprinting introduced around Grant‘s portrait
  • Series of 1993: Security thread and watermark added
  • Series of 1997: Larger off-center portrait, subtle background colors, updated typography
  • Series of 2004: Color-shifting ink, additional background colors, enhanced microprinting
Series Notable Changes
1990 Microprinting around Grant‘s portrait
1993 Security thread and watermark added
1997 Larger off-center portrait, subtle background colors, updated typography
2004 Color-shifting ink, additional background colors, enhanced microprinting

Source: U.S. Department of the Treasury

Today‘s $50 bill incorporates state-of-the-art security features to deter counterfeiting, such as:

  • Watermark: A faint image of Grant visible from both sides when held to light
  • Security thread: A thin embedded strip that reads "USA 50" and glows under UV light
  • Color-shifting ink: Numeral 50 in lower right corner changes from copper to green when tilted
  • Microprinting: Tiny text spelling out "FIFTY," "USA," and "THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA"

Rare and Valuable $50 Bills for Collectors

For passionate collectors, certain $50 bills can fetch significantly more than their face value due to their scarcity, printing quirks, or historical importance. Here are some of the most coveted examples:

  1. 1862 $50 Legal Tender Note: These earliest $50 notes featuring Alexander Hamilton are highly prized, with pristine specimens selling for upwards of $10,000 at auction.

  2. 1891 $50 Treasury Note: Nicknamed the "Seward Note" after William H. Seward‘s portrait, this short-lived series is extremely rare. A superb example sold for $384,000 in a 2013 Heritage Auctions sale.

  3. 1928 $50 Gold Certificate: Although no longer redeemable for gold, these striking notes are valued for their beauty and scarcity. A star note from this series sold for $76,375 in a 2021 Stack‘s Bowers auction.

  4. Misprinted $50 Bills: Printing errors can significantly boost a note‘s collectible value. Examples include misaligned or misprinted serial numbers, dramatic foldovers, and the elusive "gutter folds" that leave blank strips running through the design.

When evaluating the collectibility of a $50 bill, be sure to consider factors such as:

  • Rarity: Is it from a limited series or special printing?
  • Condition: Is the note crisp and well-centered with original embossing?
  • Serial number: Does it feature a coveted low number, solid digits, or a "fancy" pattern?
  • Provenance: Does it have a notable history of ownership?

As with all collectibles, the value of a particular $50 bill ultimately depends on its desirability within the collecting community. For the most up-to-date pricing data, consult trusted numismatic resources such as the Greensheet, Coin World, and Paper Money magazine.

The $50 Bill in Circulation

Despite its storied history and anti-counterfeiting protections, the $50 bill remains one of the least circulated denominations of U.S. currency. According to the Federal Reserve, $50 notes account for just 3.5% of all bills in circulation as of 2023, compared to nearly 40% for the ubiquitous $1 bill.

Denomination Share of Total (%)
$1 39.5%
$2 0.1%
$5 7.8%
$10 8.1%
$20 26.6%
$50 3.5%
$100 14.4%

Source: Federal Reserve Currency Print Orders (2023)

Several factors contribute to the relative scarcity of $50 bills in day-to-day transactions:

  1. Limited production: The Bureau of Engraving and Printing produces far fewer $50 notes compared to other denominations, with just 153.6 million printed in 2020 versus over 1.6 billion $20 bills.

  2. Merchant reluctance: Some retailers are hesitant to accept $50 bills due to concerns about counterfeiting and the inconvenience of making change for smaller purchases.

  3. ATM distribution: Most ATMs primarily dispense $20 bills, with some offering $5 and $10 options. Very few include $50 notes.

  4. Cultural superstitions: Persistent rumors and urban legends have imbued the $50 bill with an aura of bad luck, leading some to avoid carrying or spending them.

Despite these challenges, the $50 note remains an integral part of the U.S. currency system and a fascinating subject for collectors and history buffs alike.

The Future of the Fifty

As digital payment methods continue to gain popularity, some have questioned the ongoing relevance of physical banknotes like the $50 bill. However, cash still plays a vital role in the American economy, particularly for small businesses, low-income households, and privacy-minded individuals.

The U.S. Treasury has no current plans to discontinue the $50 note, and Ulysses S. Grant‘s portrait is likely to remain a fixture of the bill for the foreseeable future. Unlike the planned redesign of the $20 note to feature abolitionist Harriet Tubman, there has not been a strong public push to replace Grant on the $50.

As a coin collector and student of American history, I believe the $50 bill serves as an important touchstone connecting us to our nation‘s complex past. The life story of Ulysses S. Grant, from his humble Ohio beginnings to his pivotal roles in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, encapsulates the challenges and resilience of 19th-century America. By preserving his legacy on our currency, we honor the sacrifices and achievements of the generations who shaped our country.

So the next time you‘re lucky enough to have a crisp $50 bill in your hands, take a moment to appreciate the craftsmanship and symbolism embedded in its design. Consider the historical journey it represents and the collector value it may one day hold. And if you find yourself with a spare Grant burning a hole in your pocket, perhaps consider starting your own collection of these fascinating slices of Americana. After all, you never know when you might discover a numismatic treasure hiding in plain sight!

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